Trot Nixon listens, stars
By STEVE ELLING, Staff Writer
DURHAM -- Gerald Perry took
the naive approach.
The first-year hitting coach of the
Pawtucket Red Sox walked up to
fading phenom Trot Nixon this past
spring and asked a loaded question.
"How many home runs did you
have last year?" said Perry, a former
Atlanta Braves first baseman. "I had 20," said
Nixon, an outfielder with Pawtucket.
"And you hit .244?" Perry said.
"Yeah," Nixon replied, unknowingly
falling deeper into Perry's disguised
trap. "That really [stunk]."
Perry paused before delivering the
punchline, the one that added both
punch and panache to Nixon's rekindled career.
"Well, you didn't get to the big leagues with 20
home runs," Perry said.
"Let's see if we can get you there with a .300
This seemingly harmless, reconstructed conversation is
offered for the
simple reason that it reconstructed what had become the
career of Wilmington's Christopher Trotman (Trot) Nixon,
one of the most
ballyhooed position-playing baseball prospects from North
the past decade.
In his fifth full season with the Red Sox organization,
has become a deadly spray hitter, and after struggling
for four years to
reach the atmospheric projections expected of him, he
earned a spot in last
week's Triple-A All-Star Game.
Who could have believed that Perry's instructions to
relax, have fun and
hit to all fields would be such a watershed event for the
guy from the
"I bought into it," Nixon, 24, said of Perry's
spiel. "What a difference."
Good thing, since the Boston Red Sox bought into him in a
Nixon received a $1 million bonus after Boston made the
star its No. 1 draft pick in 1993, signing him through
During his senior year at Wilmington's New Hanover High,
possessed a rare mix of speed and power and seemed
destined to patrol
center field at Fenway Park.
During his senior football season, Nixon broke school
held by Sonny Jurgensen and Roman Gabriel, and earned a
play quarterback at N.C. State. Nixon was so fast that
his prep teammates
called him "White Lightning," which also
applied to the heat administered by
his muscled left arm.
As a pitcher/outfielder, Nixon went 12-0 and drove in a
runs as a senior. He homered in his final at-bat to lead
New Hanover to the
state 4-A title. Baseball America magazine, in what
hardly was viewed as a
stretch, named Nixon its national prep player of the
Small wonder that the Beantown bean counters coughed up a
dough on the eve of the signing deadline, luring him off
the football practice
field at N.C. State.
Nixon had more tools than the Watergate plumbers and also
wait to break in.
Nixon said he misses football but doesn't regret his
decision to play
"The things I miss about it [football] are the
contact, the crowds, the
friends you make there,'' he said. "But I don't look
at it as something like, 'I
wish I would have done that.' ''
Five years later, Nixon sits in the visiting dugout of
Durham Bulls Athletic
Park, where Pawtucket is in the midst of a four-game
series, and patiently
fields thinly veiled questions from hometown-area TV and
about what went wrong. Why it took so long to fulfill his
Yet, he is smiling. When a guy is batting .314 with 10
homers, 39 runs
batted in and a team-high 15 stolen bases while batting
mostly first or
second in the lineup, vindication is in the numbers,
Previously, the minors had been more punitive than
productive. A back
problem short-circuited two early seasons for Nixon in
Class-A ball, but he
was promoted anyway. Boston pushed him ahead, perhaps
"Maybe we did, I don't know," said Bob
Schaefer, Boston's director of
player development. "But I always thought he was a
guy who needed a
It was that and then some. Eventually, other top Red Sox
such as Nomar Garciaparra, Jeff Suppan and Carl Pavano --
him. As Nixon struggled in Double-A and Triple-A
dropped him from their organizational top-10 lists.
"I don't even read Baseball Weekly or Baseball
America except to keep
up with how my friends are doing on other teams," he
said. These days,
they're trying to keep up with him.
"He's been improving every day," Perry said.
"Hopefully, if not this year,
then next year [he'll be promoted for good]."
It isn't so much that Nixon, who bats left-handed and
left-handed, re-invented the wheel, but he re-invented
Proof came Thursday night against the Bulls, when Nixon
hung in on a
breaking pitch and lined a run-scoring double down the
"I can tell ya, last year, that's a groundout to
second," Nixon said. "No
way I get a hit on that last season."
Actually, a fastball down the pipe would have given him
trouble in '97,
which was nightmarish by any standard, for the most part.
Promoted from Double-A after batting .251 with 11 homers,
struggled for two months at Pawtucket. Through the first
66 games at
Triple-A, he was batting .188.
"Last season?" he said. "It sucked. I've
never, ever thought of myself as
a .250 hitter."
He wasn't even that, actually. Given his first-rate
makeup, Nixon kept
grinding and team officials kept their fingers crossed.
Each month last
summer, his batting average climbed. By season's end,
he'd hit 20 homers
and driven in 61 runs while raising his average to .244.
After his second consecutive season of winter ball in
walked into spring training in 1998 realizing that his
can't-miss label might
soon be marked down to clearance prices.
"Something had to change," Nixon said.
Something did. Mix a few years of maturity and seasoning
with his new
flat stroke -- more spray-maker than haymaker -- and his
"In spring training, [Boston manager] Jimy Williams
said Trot was the
most improved player in camp," Schaefer said.
"That made everybody feel
Goose bumps in sunny Florida don't last long, yet Nixon
batting .300 all season. While he may never be the
power hitter that club officials envisioned five years
ago, he has developed
into a potentially productive bat in the Nos. 2, 7 or 8
holes for Boston,
"I guess I had more to learn out of high school than
I originally thought,"
Nixon said. "But I think I've become a good
all-around player who can beat
a team in a lot of different ways."
Thursday against the Bulls, he bunted for a hit. Friday,
he stole a base.
Saturday, he scored on a sacrifice fly. If he keeps up
the versatility act -- he
already is considered Pawtucket's best defensive player
-- he might still get
The parent club has a Green Monster in its outfield, but
many monsters in the outfield wearing uniforms. Troy
O'Leary has left field
locked up, and the other two spots are shared by Darren
Lewis and Damon Buford.
Next spring, if not sooner, Nixon will get a chance to
question as to whether, Yaz or no, he can play in the
"It's taken some time," Schaefer said,
"but he's really become a polished